With the combination of a flawed premise and crucial execution issues, the polarizing Heroes in Crisis stands as the first significant miss for superstar writer Tom King.
Nominally structured as a mystery, Heroes in Crisis revolves around a mass killing at Sanctuary, a secret facility established by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as a healing center for superheroes who have endured various kinds of trauma in the course of their work. Perpetual screw-up Booster Gold and villain-turned-antihero Harley Quinn quickly emerge as the leading suspects. Eventually, Flash Wally West is revealed as having accidentally killed fellow patients when he momentarily lost control of his powers, then engineered a cover-up to buy time to drag Sanctuary into the light.
The structural flaws of Heroes in Crisis are perhaps easier to parse. For a story presented as a mystery, the pacing is off completely. While the first issue builds immediate interest, over eight additional installments information is teased out too slowly. Long, introspective passages and nine-panel grids of talking heads representing the therapeutic “diary room” sessions of various heroes take up a significant amount of space, so that even when the narrative starts to gather momentum, there’s a new roadblock to the story’s forward progression just around the corner. It’s an example of the worst kind of trendy decompression in comic book storytelling, as the mystery aspects of this plot might have been effective in a tighter, shorter run.
One could argue that, judging by the rules of your standard mystery story, the plot of Heroes in Crisis doesn’t exactly play fair. Unreliable narrators are a valid story choice, but the faking of clues robs the reader of the ability to make educated deductions based on the evidence. There is some decent “buddy cop” banter for the investigative duos that emerge (Booster and Blue Beetle; Harley and Batgirl). But a lot of the forward motion relies on coincidences and deus ex machina to make even a small progression possible. No one really solves the puzzle through deduction; the central quartet more trips over the resolution.
There are, unfortunately, much deeper problems than the botched mystery structure that make Heroes in Crisis not just puzzling, but at times outright alienating.
King has a sincere interest in the effects of trauma on frontline defenders, inspired by his own real life background. That’s been a prominent element of much of the work that’s made him a star over the past few years, including Vision, Mister Miracle, Omega Men and his lengthy run on Batman. Whereas the topic seemed both fresher and better integrated in his earlier work (albeit inconsistent in his Batman run), with Heroes in Crisis readers can be forgiven for feeling like King has already covered this terrain.
Dovetailing with the suspicion that King is repeating himself is the question of whether the very premise of Heroes in Crisis is something readers want to see. In earlier work, King did a more elegant job of working the effects of traumatic experience as a theme into the comic book worlds inhabited by his characters. In Crisis, he positions it as the dominant tone and imports a real world aesthetic that renders the material more difficult to get through. Traumatic experiences have been part and parcel of comic books since their earliest days, with a variety of heroes experiencing a wide range of losses, deaths, injuries, betrayals and other challenges. Seeing the heroes work through those difficulties and overcome them is part of the genre. It’s part of the heroic mythology, watching larger-than-life characters inspire readers as they handle the challenges their worlds throw at them.
Heroes in Crisis is something different. Positing that all of the heroes of the DC Universe are in need of frequent counseling because of job stress might align with the experiences of real world front line responders. But readers go to superhero comics to get away from the real world. While a particular hero might break down on occasion, by and large fans want to see the heroes rise above the tragedies they face. Depicting them all as being one bad day away from wiping out a dozen colleagues isn’t what many fans want to see from a Big Two comic.
From a real world perspective, the depiction of therapy in Heroes in Crisis is highly problematic. To some extent that’s intentional, as King wants to show how the well-meaning Trinity fails to grasp the nature of trauma and recovery. But if a writer is going to dispense with the cover of “comic book logic” and bring in real world dynamics, then he’s obligated to treat them with respect, especially for as important an issue as mental health. The depiction of therapy in the story is outright wrong: patients are isolated and have what amount to self-directed sessions in a virtual reality chamber. Modern psychotherapy is built on the bedrock of interaction and connection, be it a one-on-one session between a patient and therapist or a group scenario. While a degree of anonymity is a factor to support the “what’s said here stays here” ethos of group therapy, it’s geared toward encouraging engagement, not preventing it. While King is trying to make that point, having Wally engineer the cover-up to drag Sanctuary into the light and dispel the stigma of getting help, the road to that moment is highly problematic. And that Sanctuary seemingly re-opens at the end of the story with the same flawed set-up is a major concern.
Most damningly there is the utter mishandling of Wally West. King does some decent work with other characters in the story. He nails the voices of Booster, Harley, Blue Beetle and Batgirl and uses them in dynamic ways that, at various points, almost salvage the story. But the revelation of Wally’s responsibility and cover-up rings false. And King never manages to get Wally’s voice and attitude quite right.
For a generation of fans, Wally WAS the Flash. He was the former sidekick who succeeded his mentor and grew into one of DC’s foremost heroes. Reducing him to an accidental mass murderer is a slap in the face to fans who love Wally. Having him cover up the crime, regardless of the motives, is utterly at odds with the hero he’d been for decades. Worse, the story takes what had been the strength of the character, one of the things that most attracted fans to him, the power of family, and made it his downfall. And that feels like a betrayal of the fans, because while circumstances may have separated Wally from his wife Linda, and caused twins Jai and Iris to be lost, making Wally’s love for his family the trigger for becoming a mass murderer is horrific. Linda and the twins were Wally’s strength; to make them his ruin is to completely misunderstand the characters.
In recent years, a split among DC’s editors and creators has been apparent. Some highly value the legacy heroes, the decades of history and generational aspect of the DC line. Others appear averse to that legacy, wanting to cast the central heroes in a more youthful aspect and ignore the generational quality of DC. The sleekly cynical New 52 was the apotheosis of the latter viewpoint, whereas Rebirth embraced the former. Heroes in Crisis plays as almost a direct rebuke to Rebirth, and using Wally, long associated with Rebirth architect Geoff Johns, as the perpetrator seems almost a deliberate choice to repudiate that direction. Fans may not know the details of behind the scenes jockeying, but it’s hard for readers to not to see what’s directly in front of them during several key passages in Crisis.
Another aspect diminishing the book is King’s copious interviews about it. As his popularity has soared, he’s received significantly greater attention from the comic book media. King’s interviews have had the unfortunate, and presumably unintended, effect of casting some of his work in a narrower, and thus less interesting, light. King has been rather vocal about insisting on the intentions of his writing, instead of allowing readers to find what is meaningful to them in his work, whether or not it’s what the author intended. It’s difficult to read Heroes in Crisis without feeling like King is standing over your shoulder superintending the experience, driving his own agenda and discouraging anything readers might impute into the work that’s inconsistent with what King wants them to find. Access to a writer’s thought process can be an inescapable facet of our wired, connected world; but sometimes creators are better served just keeping silent and leaving it up to the readers.
While Heroes in Crisis is a disappointment, King is a talented writer and hopefully will rebound. Fans can hope that perhaps he’s exhausted what he wants or needs to say about superhero trauma and turns his attention to new ideas in his future work.